“An Escaped Pig” (July 13, 1864)

This photograph of Horatio Wright was half of a stereographic image titled "General Wright, Commander of the "Bloody Sixth Corps" (Library of Congress).

This photograph of Horatio Wright was half of a stereographic image titled “General Wright, Commander of the “Bloody Sixth Corps” (Library of Congress).

Theodore Lyman provides another snapshot of the tedious life in front of Petersburg. It’s quite a contrast to the bustle and excitement around Washington, where General Horatio Wright and the VI Corps have gone to repel Jubal Early’s invasion. We can add Mr. Shaw, Winfield Scott Hancock’s English valet, the Lyman’s gallery of great characters.

I hear this evening that General Wright has been put in command of all forces to repel the invasion. But our attempt to bag the raiders may be somewhat like the domestic rural scene of surrounding an escaped pig in the vegetable garden. Don’t you know how half a dozen men will get in a circle about him, and then cautiously advance, with an expression of face between confidence and timidity? The piggie stands still in the midst, with a small and a treacherous eye. Suddenly, picking out the weakest man, he makes an unexpected rush between his legs, upsets him, and canters away midst an impotent shower of sticks! I suppose you think I take a very light view of things, but in reality I do not; only, after seeing so many fine men knocked over, this business of tearing up tracks and eating all the good wife’s fresh butter seems of lesser consequence. Another thing is, I hope it will do us good, sting us to the quick, and frighten us into a wholesome draft. You must remember that this sort of raiding has been a continual and every-day thing in the southern country, though to us it seems to be so awful.

The mail man who came down to-night says they are in a great tremble at Washington, while down here we are pleasantly building bowers against the sun, and telling stories to wile away the time. To these last our French Colonel contributes many, of the Midi, which, with the peculiar accent, are very laughable. To illustrate the egotistical ideas of the Marseillais, he told of a father who was showing to his son a brigade of Zouaves who had just come from Italy and were marching through the streets. “Mon enfant! Vois-tu ces Zouaves? Eh bien, ils sont tous-e des Marseillais. II y avait des Parisiens, mais on les a mis dans la musique!” You remember that long, hot street there they call the Canebiere. A certain citizen, who had just been to see Paris with its present improvements, returned much gratified. “Ah,” said he, “Paris est une bien jolie ville; si, ga avait une Canebiere, ca serait un petit Marseille.” As an offset to which we must have an anecdote of this region. Did I ever tell you of “Shaw,” the valet of Hancock (formerly of General French)? This genius is a regular specimen of the ne’er-do-weel, roving, jack-of-all-trades Englishman. I fancy from his manner that he has once been a head servant or butler in some crack British regiment. He has that intense and impressive manner, only to be got, even by Bulls, in years of drill. He is a perfect character, who no more picks up anything American, than a duck’s feathers soak water. He is full of low-voiced confidence. “Oh, indeed, sir! The General rides about a vast deal in the dust, sir. I do assure you, that to-day, when he got in, his undergarments and his hose were quite soiled, sir!”

“That fellow,” said Hancock, “is the most inquisitive and cool man I ever saw. Now I don’t mind so much his smoking all my cigars and drinking all my liquors—which he does—but I had a bundle of most private papers which I had hidden in the bottom of my trunk, and, the other day, I came into my tent and there was Mr. Shaw reading them! And, when I asked him what the devil he meant, he said: “Oh, General, I took the liberty of looking at them, and now I am so interested, I hope you will let me finish the rest!”

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp. 190-2. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

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Chronic Troubles (June 23, 1864)

Horatio Wright took command of the VI Corps following the death of John Sedgwick (Library of Congress).

Horatio Wright took command of the VI Corps following the death of John Sedgwick (Library of Congress).

Theodore Lyman spends some time with Horatio Wright and the VI Corps, and is not impressed.

All were up at an early hour and ready for an advance, which had been ordered. On the right, towards the Gregory house, we were already against them, and I suppose my friend there, Major Crow, had seen us under more hostile circumstances. . . . By 4.30 General Meade started for General Wright’s Headquarters at the Williams house, where he ordered me to stay, when he left at seven. . . . I rode about with General Wright, who visited his line, which was not straight or facing properly. That’s a chronic trouble in lines in the woods. Indeed there are several chronic troubles. The divisions have lost connection; they cannot cover the ground designated, their wing is in the air, their skirmish line has lost its direction, etc., etc. Then General Meade gets mad with the delay. The commanders say they do as well as they can, etc. Well, Ricketts ran one way and Russell another; and then the 2d Corps—how did that run? and were the skirmishers so placed as to face ours? and what would General Birney do about it? How long was the line? could it advance in a given direction, and, if so, how? All of which is natural with a good many thousand men in position in a dense wood, which nobody knows much about. All this while the men went to sleep or made coffee; profoundly indifferent to the perplexities of their generals; that was what generals were paid for. When General Wright had looked a great deal at his line, and a great deal more at his pocket compass, he rode forth on the left to look at the pickets, who were taking life easy like other privates. They had put up sun-shades with shelter-tents and branches, and were taking the heat coolly. …

James B. Ricketts. The former artilleryman commanded a division in the VI Corps. His sister had married Meade's brother (Library of Congress).

James B. Ricketts. The former artilleryman commanded a division in the VI Corps. His sister had married Meade’s brother (Library of Congress).

About this time a Vermont captain (bless his soul!) went and actually did something saucy and audacious. With eighty sharpshooters he pushed out boldly, drove in a lot of cavalry, and went a mile and a quarter to the railroad, which he held, and came back in person to report, bringing a piece of the telegraph wire. . . . Some time in the morning, I don’t exactly know when, the signal officers reported a large force, say two divisions, marching out from the town, along the railroad, whereof we heard more anon. At noon there still had been no advance, and General Wright went to General Birney to arrange one. There was General Meade, not much content with the whole affair. They all pow-wowed a while, and so we rode back again, through the dreary woods, through which fires had run. It was after two when we returned. Now then—at last—all together—skirmishers forward! And away they go, steadily. Oh, yes! but Rebs are not people who let you sit about all the day and do just as you like; remember that always, if nothing else. There are shots away out by the railroad—so faint that you can scarce hear them. In comes a warm sharpshooter: “They are advancing rapidly and have driven the working party from the railroad.” Here come the two divisions, therefore, or whatever they are. “Stop the advance,” orders General Wright. “General Wheaton, strengthen that skirmish line and tell them to hold on.” The remainder of Wheaton’s division is formed on the flank, and begins making a breastwork; more troops are sent for. The fire of the skirmishers now draws nearer and gets distinct; but, when the reinforcement arrives, they make a stout stand, and hold them. . . . All the while the telegraph is going: “Don’t let ’em dance round you, pitch into them!” suggests General Meade (not in those exact words). “Don’t know about that—very easy to say—will see about it,” replies the cautious W.; etc., etc. Pretty soon the cavalry comes piling in across the Aiken oat-field; they don’t hold too long, you may be certain. This exposes the flank of the picket line, which continues to shoot valiantly. In a little while more, a division officer of the day gallops in and says they have broken his skirmishers and are advancing in line of battle. But the Rebels did not try an approach through the open oat-field: bullets would be too thick there; so they pushed through the woods in our rear. I could hear them whooping and ki-yi-ing, in their peculiar way. I felt uncomfortable, I assure you. It was now towards sunset. Our position was right in the end of the loop, where we should get every bullet from two sides, in event of an attack. General [Lewis] Grant, of the Vermont Brigade, walked up and said, in his quiet way: “Do you propose to keep your Headquarters here?” “Why not?” says Ricketts. “Because, when the volleys begin, nothing can live here.” To which Ricketts replied, “Ah?” as if someone had remarked it was a charming evening, or the like. I felt very like addressing similar arguments to General Wright, but pride stood in the way, and I would have let a good many volleys come before I would have given my valuable advice. A column of attack was now formed by us, during which the enemy pushed in their skirmishers and the bullets began to slash among the trees most spitefully; for they were close to; whereat Wright (sensible man!) vouchsafed to move on one side some seventy yards, where we only got accidental shots. And what do you think? It was too dark now for us to attack, and the Rebs did not—and so, domino, after all my tremendous description! Worse than a newspaper isn’t it? I was quite enraged to be so scared for no grand result.*

*“I look on June 22d and 23d as the two most discreditable days to this army that I ever saw! There was everywhere, high and low, feebleness, confusion, poor judgment. The only person who kept his plans and judgment clear was General Meade, himself. On this particular occasion Wright showed himself totally unfit to command a corps.”—Lyman’s Journal.

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, p. 173-6. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

A Gift (May 17, 1864)

A view of the Meade house on Delancey Place in Philadelphia today (Tom Huntington photo).

A view of the Meade house on Delancey Place in Philadelphia today (Tom Huntington photo).

Meade writes on May 17 on the eve of a renewed attack against Lee’s Spotsylvania lines. After the terrible fighting against the Mule Shoe salient, the Confederates had withdrawn to a new position, one the Federals hope will be more susceptible to assault.

The Gerhard Meade mentions is his wife’s brother-in-law. In the end Mrs. Meade will get her way regarding the house on Delancey Place in Philadelphia and the Meades will receive the home as a gift from their friends. The General died in the house in 1872. The building still stands and you can see the word “Meade” carved on one of the lintels.

To-morrow we shall begin fighting again, with, I trust, some decided result, for it is hardly natural to expect men to maintain without limit the exhaustion of such a protracted struggle as we have been carrying on.

The last few days have given our men rest, and the arrival of reinforcements has put them in good spirits. There is a determination on all sides to fight it out, and have an end put to the war; a result which I think will most certainly be accomplished if we can overcome the army before us.

I received to-day a kind letter from Mr. Gerhard, written from his sick room, and informing me of the generosity of kind friends in Philadelphia, who had subscribed to pay for your house in DeLancey Place. I have replied to Mr. Gerhard, and whilst I have tried to express my sense of the generosity of my friends, I have declined the gift, believing that, under existing circumstances, it would not be proper in me to accept. At the same time I have said if it should be God’s will that I should fall in this war, then anything to assist you and my orphans would be most gratefully and thankfully received. I hope you will approve of my course, and that my feelings will be understood. It would not do to lose our independence, and I don’t think we would be comfortable in a house bought with our friends’ money.

I have been riding all day, getting ready for to-morrow’s battle. I shall now retire to rest, earnestly praying God to protect us, and give victory to our side.

On May 17 Theodore Lyman resumes his account of the fighting in the Wilderness. Here he talks about Confederate General John B. Gordon’s flank attack on the Union right late in the day on May 6. As I write in Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg:

Confederate General John B. Gordon (National Archives).

Confederate General John B. Gordon (National Archives).

The attackers were under Brig. Gen. John Gordon, a hard-fighting Georgian. The first troops the screaming rebels hit were brigades under the command of Brigadier Generals Alexander Shaler and Truman Seymour. It was the continuation of a string of bad luck for Seymour, the general Meade had suspected of sucking up to Reynolds back in 1862. Since then Seymour had been disastrously defeated at the Battle of Olustree in Florida and seriously injured leading an attack on Battery Wagner outside Charleston, South Carolina. Now his bad luck continued. His troops broke for the rear. The Confederates captured both Seymour and Shaler.

The men of the VI Corps fell back against Warren’s V Corps to their right. “Suddenly there was a wild, fearful yell, a terrific crash, and the tide of battle rolled backward,” remembered Pvt. Theodore Gerrish of the 20th Maine. “A portion of the Sixth corps had given way, and the enemy followed up the advantage thus gained, until they had completely turned our flank, and the firing was almost in our rear. Some of the regiments in our brigade showed signs of alarm at this situation, but the sons of Maine were determined to hold their position, even if they were surrounded and destroyed in so doing. The enemy’s advance on our right was finally checked, and our line was re-established.”

Alexander Shaler, who was taken prisoner in the Wilderness. He received the Medal of Honor for his actions during the Battle of Chancellorsville (Library of Congress).

Alexander Shaler, who was taken prisoner in the Wilderness. He received the Medal of Honor for his actions during the Battle of Chancellorsville (Library of Congress).

When Meade received reports that another Confederate flank attack had routed a portion of the Army of the Potomac in the Wilderness, he appeared less concerned about it than Grant did. Fixing a cold eye on the panicked courier who had reported the VI Corps’ destruction, he demanded sarcastically, “Do you mean to tell me that the Sixth Corps is to do no more fighting this campaign?” In fact, Sedgwick had ridden to the front to help rally his demoralized men and soon had things under control.

Things did look bad for a time. Horace Porter reported an incident in which a general whom he did not identify reached Grant’s headquarters and expressed his fears that Lee would seek to get between the Union army and the Rapidan, cutting off the line of communications. “I know Lee’s methods well by past experience,” the officer declared with some self-importance. The normally unflappable general in chief reacted with uncharacteristic temper. He stood up and yanked the cigar from his mouth. “Oh, I am heartily tired of hearing about what Lee is going to do,” Grant barked. “Some of you always seem to think he is suddenly going to turn a double somersault, and land in our rear and on both of our flanks at the same time. Go back to your command, and try to think what we are going to do ourselves, instead of what Lee is going to do.”

Meade and Grant were right not to worry. Gordon’s flank attack was the last major action of the Battle of the Wilderness. It had been two days of bloody and confused conflict, “a battle fought with the ear, and not with the eye,” according to Horace Porter. “All circumstances seemed to combine to make the scene one of unutterable horror. At times the wind howled through the tree-tops, mingling its moans with the groans of the dying, and heavy branches were cut off by the fire of the artillery, and fell crashing upon the heads of the men, adding a new terror to battle. Forest fires raged; ammunition-trains exploded; the dead were roasted in the conflagration; the wounded, roused by its hot breath, dragged themselves along, with their torn and mangled limbs, in the mad energy of despair, to escape the ravages of the flames; and every bush seemed hung with shreds of blood-stained clothing. It was as though Christian men had turned to fiends, and hell itself had usurped the place of earth.”

Here’s how Lyman wrote about it:

Truman Seymour (Library of Congress).

Truman Seymour (Library of Congress).

. . . Just at dark there occurred a most disgraceful stampede in the 6th Corps — a thing that has been much exaggerated in the papers, by scared correspondents. You will remember I told you that we had two dubious divisions in the army: one, the Pennsylvania Reserves, has done finely and proved excellent; but the other, General Ricketts’s division of the 6th Corps, composed of troops from Winchester, known as “Milroy’s weary boys,” never has done well. They ran on the Mine Run campaign, and they have run ever since. Now, just at dark, the Rebels made a sort of sortie, with a rush and a yell, and as ill-luck would have it, they just hit these bad troops, who ran for it, helterskelter. General Seymour rode in among them, had his horse shot, and was taken. General Shaler’s brigade had its flank turned and Shaler also was taken. Well, suddenly up dashed two Staff officers, one after the other, all excited, and said the whole 6th Corps was routed; it was they that were routed, for Wright’s division stood firm, and never budged; but for a time there were all sorts of rumors, including one that Generals Sedgwick and Wright were captured. In a great hurry the Pennsylvania Reserves were sent to the rescue, and just found all the enemy again retired. A good force of them did get round, by a circuit, to the Germanna plank, where they captured several correspondents who were retreating to Washington! Gradually the truth came out, and then we shortened the right by drawing back the 5th and 6th Corps, so as to run along the interior dotted line, one end of which ends on the Germanna plank.

General Meade was in favor of swinging back both wings still more, which should have been done, for then our next move would have been more rapid and easy.

The result of this great Battle of the Wilderness was a drawn fight, but strategically it was a success, because Lee marched out to stop our advance on Richmond, which, at this point, he did not succeed in doing. We lost a couple of guns and took some colors. On the right we made no impression; but, on the left, Hancock punished the enemy so fearfully that they, that night, fell back entirely from his front and shortened their own line, as we shortened ours, leaving their dead unburied and many of their wounded on the ground. The Rebels had a very superior knowledge of the country and had marched shorter distances. Also I consider them more daring and sudden in their movements; and I fancy their discipline on essential points is more severe than our own — that is, I fancy they shoot a man when he ought to be shot, and we do not. As to fighting, when two people fight without cessation for the best part of two days, and then come out about even, it is hard to determine.

Meade’s correspondence taken from The Life and Letters of George Gordon Meade, Major-General United States Army, Vol. 2, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1913), pp. 196-7. Available via Google Books.

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp 97-9. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

Hatchets Buried (April 18, 1864)

Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick, commander of the VI Corps, and his staff. Both Meade and Lyman wrote about the review of the VI Corps on April 18 (Library of Congress).

Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick, commander of the VI Corps, and his staff. Both Meade and Lyman wrote about the review of the VI Corps on April 18 (Library of Congress).

David Birney realizes the uselessness of the attempts to remove Meade from command and replace him with either Joe Hooker or Dan Sickles. Now he must mend fences. It must have been an uncomfortable meeting for Birney but apparently he was pleased with the results. “I am again on very pleasant terms with Gen. Meade,” Birney wrote to a friend. “He assured me of his high regard, and desire for me to remain.”

In this letter Meade also comments once again on the failed raid on Richmond that Judson Kilpatrick and Ulric Dahlgren had attempted in March. Dahlgren had been killed and on his body the Confederates found letters outlining a plan to burn Richmond and kill Jefferson Davis and members of his cabinet. The Mr. Bond he mentions is L. Montgomery Bond, who had headed a campaign to get Philadelphians to volunteer for the Sanitary fair held in that city. Quite likely Meade had written to him about that subject.

Following Meade’s letter is Theodore Lyman’s observations on the Army of the Potomac, written on the same day. Where Meade mentions the review of the VI Corps, Lyman describes it.

I had an interview with General Birney to-day, who disclaimed ever having entertained unfriendly feelings towards me, or being a partisan of Sickles, and expressed the hope he would be permitted to serve under me. I listened to all he had to say, but made no reply, except that I had never heard he had any unfriendly feelings towards me.

To-day Grant reviewed the Sixth Corps (Sedgwick’s). It was a fine day, and the men looked and marched finely. Grant expressed himself highly pleased, and is quite astonished at our system and organization.

I see a letter I wrote to a Mr. Bond, Chairman of Committee on Labor, Income and Revenue, has already gotten into the papers. I declare I am almost afraid to put pen to paper, when writing to any one but you. I had supposed that my present humble position would shield me from getting into print, and that letters from Grant only would be of value. You would be amused to see the worshipping of the rising sun by certain officers in this army; but Grant behaves very handsomely, and immediately refers to me all the letters and communications he gets from my subordinates, who apply to him when they have axes to grind. I have received a letter from General Lee, enclosing photographic copies of the papers found on Colonel Dahlgren, and asking whether these papers were authorized, sanctioned or approved by the Government of the United States, or Colonel Dahlgren’s superior officers. This was a pretty ugly piece of business; for in denying having authorized or approved “the burning of Richmond, or killing Mr. Davis and Cabinet,” I necessarily threw odium on Dahlgren. I, however, enclosed a letter from Kilpatrick, in which the authenticity of the papers was impugned; but I regret to say Kilpatrick’s reputation, and collateral evidence in my possession, rather go against this theory. However, I was determined my skirts should be clear, so I promptly disavowed having ever authorized, sanctioned or approved of any act not required by military necessity, and in accordance with the usages of war.

Here’s Lyman’s letter. The Rowley he mentions is William Rowley, who had been with Grant out west and now was serving as his military secretary. There was some tension between the staffs of Meade and Grant; perhaps Lyman’s observations are a reflection of this.

Ulysses Grant was known as a natural and skilled rider (Library of Congress).

Ulysses Grant was known as a natural and skilled rider (Library of Congress).

I have seen some high-bush blackberries that already had wee leaves, just beginning to open; and the buds of the trees are swelling; and hundreds of little toads sing and whistle all night, to please other hundreds of Misses toads. The sap is rising so in the oak trees that the wood won’t burn without some trouble. It really looks like a beginning of spring; and everything is so quiet that it is quite amazing; whether it is that old soldiers get lazy and sleep a good deal during the day, I don’t know, but really just a short way from camp, it is as still as if not a human being were near; and here at Headquarters, the only sounds are the distant car-whistles and the drums and trumpets sounding the calls; except, indeed, the music of the band, which is hardly a noise and is very acceptable. I suppose we may call this the lull before the hurricane, which little short of a miracle can avert. There is Grant, with his utterly immovable face, going about from Culpeper to Washington and back, and sending no end of cipher messages, all big with strategy. He evidently means to do something pretty serious before he gives up. To-day was a great day for him; he reviewed the entire 6th Corps, which, as you know, has been strengthened by a division of the late 3d Corps. The day has been fine, very. At eleven o’clock we started and rode towards Culpeper, to meet General Grant, who encountered us beyond Brandy Station. He is very fond, you must know, of horses, and was mounted on one of the handsomest I have seen in the army. He was neatly dressed in the regulation uniform, with a handsome sash and sword, and the three stars of a lieutenant-general on his shoulder. He is a man of a natural, severe simplicity, in all things — the very way he wears his high-crowned felt hat shows this: he neither puts it on behind his ears, nor draws it over his eyes; much less does he cock it on one side, but sets it straight and very hard on his head. His riding is the same: without the slightest “air,” and, per contra, without affectation of homeliness; he sits firmly in the saddle and looks straight ahead, as if only intent on getting to some particular point. General Meade says he is a very amiable man, though his eye is stern and almost fierce-looking.

Well, we encountered him, as aforesaid, followed by three or four aides; one of whom, Lieutenant-Colonel Rowley, was oblivious of straps, and presented an expanse of rather ill-blacked, calfskin boots, that took away from his military ensemble a good deal. When a man can ride without straps, he may do so, if he chooses; but, when he possesseth not the happy faculty of keeping down his trousers, he should make straps a part of his religion! We took our station on a swell of ground, when we could see a large part of the Corps in line; but there was so much of it, that, though drawn up by battalions (that is, ten men deep), there could be found, in the neighborhood, no ground sufficiently extensive, without hollows. At once they began to march past — there seemed no end of them. In each direction there was nothing but a wide, moving hedge of bright muskets; a very fine sight. . . . General Grant is much pleased and says there is nothing of the sort out West, in the way of discipline and organization. . . .

Meade’s correspondence taken from The Life and Letters of George Gordon Meade, Major-General United States Army, Vol. 2, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1913), pp. 190-1. Available via Google Books.

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp 82-4. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.